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Forecast podcast: Climbing death toll in El Salvador gang crackdown sparks international backlash

Inside a bus with dozens of shaved-headed prisoners and just one guard in the aisle

Editors Jimmy Lovaas and Jeff Landset discuss El Salvador’s year-long gang crackdown that has human rights monitors questioning the cost, plus more on Russian state forces fully taking over the occupation of Bakhmut, Ukraine, legislative elections in Guinea-Bissau, the anniversary of China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and French pension protests.

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These stories and others are also available in our free weekly Forecast newsletter.

This episode was produced with work from Factal editors Alex Moore, Jess Fino, Vivian Wang, David Wyllie and Jeff Landset. Produced and edited by Jimmy Lovaas. Music courtesy of Andrew Gospe

Have feedback, suggestions or events we’ve missed? Drop us a note:

Note: Every month, Factal’s journalists produce a newsletter that takes a look back at big global stories that you might have missed. We call it The Debrief.
June’s Debrief will be out next week, but as a sneak peak for our listeners, we’ve got an audio clip of this month’s interview featuring Senior Editor Sophie Perryer talking about the intercommunal clashes in western DR Congo that have left thousands dead and more displaced.

Factal Forecast podcast transcript

This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.


Welcome to the Factal Forecast, a look at the week’s biggest stories and what they mean from the editors at Factal. I’m Jimmy Lovaas.

Today is June 1.

In this week’s forecast we’ve got Russian state forces fully taking over the occupation of Bakhmut, Ukraine, legislative elections in Guinea-Bissau, the anniversary of China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, French pension protests and a look at El Salvador’s crackdown on gangs.   

You can also read about these stories and more in our weekly newsletter, which you can find a link to in the show notes.

Russian defense ministry fully takes over Bakhmut

Information compiled by Alex Moore

JIMMY: There will be some changes in Bakhmut, Ukraine, by Friday. Russian state forces will complete the process of taking over the occupation of the city from Wagner Group mercenaries.

The move comes after a grinding campaign that lasted more than nine months. 

Russian forces secured their first big victory over Ukraine since last summer with the completed capture of Bakhmut earlier in May. 

The pyrrhic victory, however, came with massive casualties that devolved into the most sustained heavy fighting the war has seen, drawing comparisons to attritional trench warfare of World War I. 

Wagner Group forces handled the majority of offensive combat, sustaining 20,000 fatalities in the process, according to the group’s founder.

Now, while Wagner is in the process of handing over control of the city to Russian defense ministry and National Guard units, what comes next for the group is unclear. 

After all, it took an outsized role in Russia’s fizzled winter offensive and the group’s founder engaged in constant bickering with the defense ministry. 

As for Bakhmut, regular Russian elements now fully take over flank support in the areas to the northwest and southwest of the city

It’s there where fighting continues as Ukraine attempts to utilize high ground to partially encircle occupiers within the city. 

With Bakhmut completed, no major Russian offensives are currently underway across the vast line of contact in occupied Ukraine. 

That leaves the ball in Kyiv’s court to choose where to launch anticipated counteroffensive operations.

Guinea-Bissau legislative elections

Information compiled by Jess Fino

JIMMY: The West African country of Guinea-Bissau will hold an election on Sunday.

President Umaro Sissoco Embaló had called for legislative elections to take place in December last year after dissolving parliament, accusing deputies of “corruption, harmful administration and embezzlement.” 

Three months earlier, the president survived a failed coup and an assassination attempt, after clashes near the presidential palace left nearly a dozen people dead

The vote was eventually delayed to this June after the suspension of 28 political parties over alleged failure to present legal credentials.

Now, around 900,000 people are registered to vote in the election, with 20 parties and two coalitions running to select 102 members of the People’s National Assembly. 

However, President Embaló has warned that he will not name candidate Domingos Simões Pereira prime minister if his coalition party wins. 

Pereira has also denounced attempts to block his electoral caravan at the airport roundabout, the main entrance to the capital Bissau. 

Current Prime Minister Nuno Gomes Nabiam is also campaigning for his party Assembly of the United People.

34th anniversary of China’s Tiananmen Square crackdown

Information compiled by Vivian Wang

JIMMY: Sunday is the 34th anniversary of China’s Tiananmen Square crackdown. 

And for the second year in a row, public gatherings recognizing the Chinese government’s violent crackdown appears unlikely to occur in Hong Kong, once the only territory controlled by China to hold such events.

Hong Kong pro-democracy activists used to hold a well-established annual vigil mourning the lives lost in Beijing in 1989, but Hong Kong authorities began banning the gathering four years ago

Thousands of people defied the bans in June 2020, but the passage of a sweeping national security law later that month quickly began to stifle dissent in the territory. That led to hundreds of arrests and ongoing trials

Three former organizers of the most well-known vigil were even recently jailed for several months for not complying with police requests. Police wanted information under the national security law, after the group was accused of being a foreign agent.

Now, Hong Kong leader John Lee did not give a clear answer when asked whether residents would legally be allowed to publicly mark the anniversary. 

Instead, he said police would take action if “public order activities” broke laws. 

Meanwhile, Taiwanese human rights groups are planning to gather in Taipei to remember Tiananmen Square.

New day of French pension protests

Information compiled by David Wyllie

JIMMY: French unions have called for a nationwide day of strikes and protests on Tuesday. They hope to keep up political pressure on President Emmanuel Macron following the passage of controversial pension reform legislation.

In April, Macron signed into law legislation that raised France’s retirement age by two years following an extended period of strikes and protests. 

Following the passage of the bill, public anger remained as strong as before, with protests continuing leading to violent clashes with police and hundreds of arrests. 

An independent report into the handling of public order criticized “preventive arrests” by police at previous protests and condemned the tactic of arbitrary detentions as an act of repression.

Now, previous nationwide days of action have seen significant disruption in French cities, with the largest gatherings happening in Paris. 

Union organizers say strike action on Tuesday will act as an opportunity for workers to have their voices heard. That, ahead of a June 8 debate on an opposition party bill that would cancel the retirement age increase.

El Salvador gang crackdown 

Information compiled by Jeff Landset

JIMMY: Our last item for this forecast is on El Salvador’s continuing crackdown on gangs. For more on that we’ve got Factal editor Jeff Landset. 

JIMMY: Hello, Jeff!

JEFF: Hey, Jimmy. How are you?

JIMMY: I’m well. You know what, I guess let’s just jump right into this. Looking forward to hearing more about the gang situation in El Salvador. What can you tell us about that? Can you give us a bit of a recap on things? 

JEFF: Yeah. So, El Salvador has historically been one of the most violent countries in the world because of its gang culture. It’s the home of several violent gangs including MS-13 and famously had such a high homicide rate that some headlines termed it as a “murder every hour.” In 2019, a 37-year-old politician named Nayib Bukele won the presidential election. He ran on a campaign focused on cracking down on gang violence. And things truly ramped up last March when 87 people were killed in one weekend. So that led to Bukele and lawmakers suspending many civil rights for people who have been arrested, including the right to a lawyer.

JIMMY: Well, what’s the latest? Where do things stand right now?

JEFF: Since then, those emergency powers have been renewed more than a dozen times and 65,000 alleged gang members have been arrested. A recent report also found that more than 150 of those people behind bars have died because of violence or neglect and none of them were ever officially charged.

JIMMY: Wow. Well you know, besides the tens of thousands of arrests and scores of deaths, what other impacts have you seen in this crackdown? Has it had any effect on crime?

JEFF: It’s had a huge effect on crime. Violent deaths in El Salvador have plummeted since the crackdown began. Some numbers show the homicide rate has been cut in half. The crackdown has also increased the country’s prison population significantly. So this past year the country constructed and opened a new mega prison designed to hold 40,000 inmates. Bukele has posted shocking videos – men with shaved heads being moved into the facility like cattle. 

JIMMY: What have reactions to this been like? 

JEFF: The population of El Salvador has accepted the crackdown with open arms. Bukele has an approval rate near 90% and there is little to no outrage in the country about the means being used to secure this. International human rights groups and other countries including the US have issued statements saying that they are concerned about what’s happening, but at the moment there’s no appetite among the Salvadoran population to stop it.

JIMMY: Well my final question, the one I always ask you know, what do you think folks should be watching for next? 

JEFF: Yeah, so other countries in the region have obviously seen what’s happened and they’re now trying their own versions to varying degrees of success. As for El Salvador itself, it could continue to lose some of its democratic norms. Bukele has said that he’s gonna run for re-election next year, even though the constitution forbids it. And even though it is technically unconstitutional, the vast majority of Salvadorans are in favor of it.

JIMMY: Well, Jeff, I think we’ll hit pause for today, but I know you’ll keep a close eye on this story for us. Always appreciate your updates. Thank you. 

JEFF: Thanks.

JIMMY: Take care.

JIMMY: One final thing before you go. Every month, Factal’s journalists produce a newsletter that takes a look back at big global stories that you might have missed. We call it The Debrief. June’s Debrief will be out next week and I’ll throw a link to the newsletter in the show notes, but as a sneak peak for you all, we’ve got an audio clip of this month’s interview featuring Factal Senior Editor Sophie Perryer talking about the intercommunal clashes in western DR Congo that have left thousands dead and more displaced. Here’s Sophie.

SOPHIE: The local response can often kind of give us an indication as to how significant something is, and in this case the military really really lowballed their response. So, it was three months after the start of the fighting that the Congolese government even sent troops into the area. So because of that delay, because we didn’t have those on-the-ground networks, because there was just none of this, sort of – none of the reporting structures were in place that we needed – we just really didn’t have any indication of how big this was or how bad this was. And… information is still coming out very slowly.

JIMMY: As always, thank you for listening to the Factal Forecast. We publish our forward-looking podcast and newsletter each Thursday to help you get a jump-start on the week ahead. Please subscribe and review wherever you find your podcasts. We’d love it if you’d consider telling a friend about us.  

Today’s episode was produced with work from Factal editors Alex Moore, Jess Fino, Vivian Wang and David Wyllie. Our interview featured editor Jeff Landset and it was produced and edited by me – Jimmy Lovaas. Our music comes courtesy of Andrew Gospe.

Until next time, if you have any feedback, suggestions or events we’ve missed, drop us a note by emailing

This transcript may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability not guaranteed. 

Copyright © 2023 Factal. All rights reserved.

Music: ‘Factal Theme’ courtesy of Andrew Gospe

Top photo: An agent guards prisoners as they are transported to their cells after 2,000 gang members were transferred to the Terrorism Confinement Center in Tecoluca, El Salvador. (Photo: Secretaria de Prensa de la Presidencia / Handout)

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